"Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World." The New York Public Library, Oct 14, 2000-January 27, 2001 (www.nypl.org/utopia).
PERHAPS THE LARGEST ASSEMBLY of utopian materials ever put on display, not once but twice, this collaboration between these two libraries offers two complementary looks at the utopian tradition, as manifested in more than one-thousand years of books and magazines, maps and globes, illuminated manuscripts, drawings and photographs, engravings, paintings and sculptures, architectural plans and models, posters and film clips. While some of the materials are drawn from other collections, this is above all an opportunity to see some of the rarely displayed treasures of the Bibliotheque nationale de France (BNF) and of the New York Public Library (NYPL).
The subject of this exhibition and the resulting selection of the materials to be displayed, are not "obvious," the way an exhibition of the works of a particular artist or even of a particular school or historical moment might be--like the current Art nouveau exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington. Through the choices made about what was to be shown, "Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World" tells a story, or indeed several stories about utopia (in the French sense of the word histoire which means both history and story). The first and most rewarding of these stories is, I think, that of the origins and sources of the utopian tradition in the West, and the catalogue (and particularly Sargent's introductory "Utopian Traditions" as well as Lecoq and Schaer's essay, "Ancient, Biblical, and Medieval Traditions"), is vital to our understanding of that story--particularly since our understanding of the origins of the utopian tradition often involves taking a definition of the genre (usually based on More's 1516 Utopia) and then looking for earlier texts that somehow fit that definition. Sargent, Lecoq and Schaer cast a much broader net. Moreover, since many of us work in some specific area or another of the utopian tradition, we may only know parts of that tradition, and have never had the opportunity to contemplate its full dimensions, assembled in a single place, (although--with all its limitations--the Manuels's Utopian Thought in the Western Worm might be a seen as an attempt at such a written account of that tradition). The other story this exhibit tells, the one with which I have more difficulty, and which is fortunately contradicted by so much of the materials in the exhibit as well as by many of the contributors to the catalogue, takes the twentieth century as the manifestation or revelation of the real, malignant significance of utopia, as a kind of social dreaming whose realization is inevitably totalitarianism. I will have more to say about my objections to that story in a moment. These exhibitions are unfortunately now both closed, although each produced beautiful catalogues, and the respective web sites--with numerous links--are still available. Since there are some major differences in the two exhibitions, I will discuss them separately, beginning with Paris where the exhibition first opened.
The Paris location for this exhibition is itself a controversial architectural monument to the utopian vision of the late French president Francois Mitterand, or to his exaggerated sense of grandeur, for it was the last of his "Grands projets"--which included the renovations at the Louvre (with I.M. Pei's stunning pyramid) and of the Gare d'Orsay, as well as some significant new buildings, including the Institut du monde arabe and the Opera of the Bastille. Like some of the other utopian visions of Modern Architecture, however, France's new national library (designed by Dominique Perrault), tends more toward the monumental than to the practical or the functional.
Situated on the Seine, the library is formed by a raised platform dominated by four glass towers with a three-story deep, rectangular space in the middle, filled with sixty-five forty meter tall trees (pine, birch and oak). The platform is raised from street level by wooden steps that run the full length of the block on all four sides, while the towers house one third of the twelve million books (also cause for controversy, since in the original plan the stacks would have been exposed to the sunlight), with the remaining eight million volumes stored in the reading rooms of the inner structure. Around the glassed-in, but inaccessible, tree-filled inner court yard, is a cavernous main floor for researchers and a second floor which constitutes a public space (although there are guards at the entrances), with open stacks and a series of galleries for exhibitions like this one. From afar (and the library's four towers can be seen across Paris from the hill of Montmartre), the site looks bleak and deserted, although when people are sitting on the stairs in the summer, it does become more of an extension of the public realm of the pavement (and this sense of public space may increase as apartments and shops continue to open in the formerly deserted neighborhood).
The exhibition was organized chronologically, in four sections, which also provide the sections of the catalogues: 1. "The Classical and Judeo-Christian Models for the Western Idea of Utopia"; 2. "Of Other Worlds: The Flowering of The Utopian Imagination from Thomas More to the Enlightenment"; 3. "Utopia in History: From the Time of Revolutions to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century" and 4. "Dreams and Nightmares: Utopia and Anti-Utopia in the Twentieth Century." The exhibit unfolds through a series of rooms, beginning with a magnificent collection of early illustrated manuscripts. Here it is useful to turn to the catalogue, since these works (clustered around the poles of "classical mythology, Greek philosophy and Christian doctrine") extend well beyond our usual ideas of the utopian tradition in Western society.
The catalogue begins with two very useful introductory essays. In "Utopia: Space, Time, History," Roland Schaer starts by reminding us that the history of utopia begins with More not only because he invented the genre, but because he "described an ideal society achieved solely by human means" (3). Nonetheless before "delving further into modern utopia's onward course, we must first reexamine the ancient and biblical traditions that came before it." In order, firstly, to appreciate "the explicit ways in which utopia set itself apart from its precursors"; and secondly, because to fully understand the modern utopia, it is imperative to highlight "the motifs it borrowed from the Classical mythology, Greek philosophy; and Christian doctrine that were its wellspring and matrix" (4). Returning to the theme of "human means," Schaer points out that there are continuities "between Christianity and utopia," in particular the "prophetic tradition" of which millenarianism is the most obvious example. Finally, he concludes by pointing out that the utopian tradition has a "specific relationship between literature and politics, or perhaps more precisely between fiction and action," insofar as "the project it sets forth assumes implementation" (5).
In "Utopian Traditions: Themes and Variations," Lyman Sargent pursues this concept of the ideal society achieved by humans means, providing a taxonomy of the many varieties of the themes and variations of the utopian tradition based on the distinction between utopias brought about with and without human effort. Examples of the latter include the earthly paradise, the Noble Savage, Cockaigne and the Millennium, and, although such utopias have been overshadowed by those achieved through human effort, some do continue to be written. More importantly, in contrast to the remarks of some of the other contributors, Sargent points out that utopias brought about with human effort do not originate with More's classic, but may be found in many classical writings, most especially in the Republic and the Laws of Plato. Nonetheless, following More's work, utopia as a literary genre, has flourished in the West. (Sargent is adamant that utopias can be found in every culture and tradition, east and west. The decision to limit the exhibit to the Western World was made to some extent as a way of reducing an impossibly large corpus.) Sargent then presents a brief survey of the chief developments of the genre, century by century after More, including the imaginary voyages of the 17th century, the Robisonnades and Gulliveriana of the 18th, the rise of socialism as well as of other practical experiments in the 19th, and the emergence of science fiction as well as the utopian dimension of film and in architecture in the 20th, and of course, the rise of dystopia and anti-utopianism. (There is also an article "Society as Utopia" by the well-known French sociologist Alain Touraine which I will discuss in a moment.)
The Golden Age in Greece having passed, happiness had taken refuge somewhere on earth, trading its temporal identity for a territorialized myth. Here we reach the source of utopia, somewhere between myth and fable, as these uncertain places inspire (especially among historians) tales describing, in these unverifiable elsewheres, societies heir to the original happiness, places to which some voyager has supposedly strayed. (Lecoq and Schaer 45)
Danielle Lecoq and Roland Schaer's "Ancient, Biblical, and Medieval Traditions" is the longest essay in the catalogue and serves to explain the inclusion of so much material which antecedes and falls outside of what we may think of as utopian. They argue that the utopian tradition grows out of earlier traditions, most especially with the myth of the Golden Age. With Christianity, the Golden Age survives, as part of the larger attempt "to make biblical history coincide with ancient mythology," becoming "the first age of the world described in Genesis" (36).
While the story of the Garden of Eden was often interpreted allegorically, there were increasingly those who claimed that Eden was a real place (as in John Mandeville's mid-14th century Travels). Consequently, against "the backdrop of a nostalgia for origins, for the lost paradise, the Christian Middle Ages developed a whole literature of the quest" (49): Quests which begin with Jerusalem, as the land of pilgrimage, and as the "navel of the world"; as well as other quests and pilgrimages, like that of Saint Brendan and the Roman d'Alexandre. At the same time, a second sort of origins can be found in other accounts which located the Golden Age not at the beginning but at the end of time. In the medieval Christian tradition, this leads to the book of the Apocalypse and the "Thousand Years of Happiness" which would follow Christ's triumphant return at the end of time--a belief developed for instance in the millenarianism of Joachim of Fiore (in the 12th century) and in the 15th century Taborites of Bohemia.
As most critics agree, the publication of More's Utopia marks a significant break with this tradition.
Mythological motifs, biblical references to lost paradise, and the millenarian tradition might be considered retrospectively as the matrices of utopian thought.... However, utopia properly speaking is clearly separate from this heritage--and Thomas More's text in some sense represents this separation--in that an appearance of the ideal society no longer comes out of an eschatological perspective, nor does it issue from a providential event of an idealization of nature, but rather is presented as a human construction, in which social organization achieves the …